April 1, 2009 -- A Baltimore mother charged with starving her son to death with the help of alleged fellow members of a religious group to which she said she belonged had been so brainwashed by the group that she agreed to withdraw her guilty plea if the child is resurrected in human form, according to her attorney.
"I have never seen anything like this in a plea agreement," said Steve Silverman, the attorney representing Ria Ramkissoon, 22, who was a member of the faith-based religious group One Mind Ministries at the time of her son's death in December 2006.
"It's clear [my client] is brainwashed," Silverman said today. "She is delusional, and the mere fact that she is currently insisting upon a caveat that her plea be dismissed if her son is resurrected speaks for itself."
Silverman told ABCNews.com that Ramkissoon, who admits to withholding food and water and food from her son because he refused to say "amen" after meals, remains confident that her son, who had just celebrated his first birthday at the time of his death, will rise from the dead.
Ramkissoon agreed Monday, in exchange for a lesser charge of child abuse resulting in death, to testify against four other purported members of the group allegedly involved in her son's death, including the alleged leader, known as Queen Antoinette. She and the three other members have been charged with first-degree murder and are awaiting trial. Antoinette, which is how she's identified in court documents, is being held without bail.
Ramkissoon, who has been in prison since her son was found dead, will receive a suspended 20-year sentence and serve five years' probation.
"It would be very easy for the court to simply say that Ramkissoon starved her child and charge her as such," Silverman said. "But they understand that she was [young] and under the influence of a demagogue twice her age who indoctrinated her.
"I think people, including the prosecutors in this case, understand Ramkissoon was a victim of this as well."
Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, declined to comment specifically on the case or on whether prosecutors consider Ramkissoon to be a victim, citing the ongoing investigation.
But when asked about her reaction to the plea deal, Burns said she had "never seen anything like this before."
Group Member Described as 'Fun' and 'Loving'
Ramkissoon, who was described to ABCNews.com by her mother, Seeta Newton, as "fun" and "goofy," became a member of One Mind Ministries in April 2006 at the age of 19, when she decided to move from her family's home into the house occupied by the group, which had about a dozen members.
Ramkissoon, a native of Trinidad, brought her then 7-month-old son, Javon Thompson, with her, according to both her mother and lawyer.
Ramkissoon's mother said that she had dropped her daughter and grandson off with members of the group in April after she was told that they were willing to babysit the child while Ramkissoon attended school.
Ramkissoon then fell out of touch with her mother.
After contacting authorities, Newton located her daughter at a nearby home, where she said her daughter acted as if she barely knew her.
"She didn't respond to me hugging her or nothing; her hands were down at her sides," Newton said. "She was a different person, a complete stranger.
"She told me to leave her alone and that she was happy. It was a total change in just two days."
Newton said that her son went to visit his sister at the group's home to check up on them, adding that he had to feign interest in the group to be permitted inside. He reported back that there was a lot of marijuana smoking and lots of rules.
According to Newton, owning cell phones and discussing their families were prohibited. They were required to dress in blue and white, the colors of royalty, she said. Members' names were also changed to include the title "queen" or "princess."
Ramkissoon's son died from starvation after he was labeled a "demon" because of his resistance to pray after meals, according to court documents. The group members later allegedly packed the boy's body in a suitcase and discarded it in Philadelphia, where it was found by authorities.
Silverman said the group's leader, Queen Antoinette, allegedly convinced Ramkissoon that she had "spoken with God" and that the toddler had been "demonized."
Antoinette, who has been held in a Baltimore jail since August 2008 pending her murder trial, was unable to be reached because she is not yet represented by an attorney. And she made no statement at other times to the press about the case. The Baltimore state's attorney's office says that Antoinette has said on more than one occasion in court that God will be representing her and that she does not need traditional legal counsel.
How Deprogramming Works
Steve Hassan, a licensed counselor who deals with cult members and a mind control expert who was de-programmed after his own time in the Unification Church -- or Moonies, as they were called -- in the 1970s, said that sects like the One Mind Ministries group that Ramkissoon belonged to in Baltimore, which is now defunct, are not uncommon in the United States.
"I used to estimate that there were about 3,000 to 5,000 cults in the country, but frankly with little ones like this one, which boasts only 12 members, there are probably many more," Hassan said.
"There are countless numbers of groups like this that are basically controlled by a domineering family and draw in members."
Hassan said that while the term for helping someone out of such a group was once referred to as "deprogramming," the practice has since evolved into a method of intervention.
"If I were treating Ramkissoon, I would intervene by telling her about my experience in a cult and ask her what attracted her to the One Mind Ministries and what made sense and didn't make sense to her," said Hassan, who warns against attacking a member's particular group for fear of causing the individual to become even more devoted to the group.
"Snapping," the term used to describe the instance when a member realizes the error of his or her ways, can sometimes happen suddenly, said Hassan, who said he worked with group members for about 30 hours before they typically "snap" out of the mind control.
"'Snapping' is like someone opening up venetian blinds in the middle of a bright day; it's shocking and overwhelming," he said. "Then the programming starts to collapse."
Hassan said that recovery varies from case to case but typically occurs after a year of treatment.
What to Do If Someone You Know Might Be Interested in a Cult
Hassan said that he advises parents and friends who may worry that a loved one is being recruited by a group similar to One Mind Ministries to be extra vigilant for any behavioral changes and to try to refrain from attacking the group in question.
"Act curious yet concerned. Pretend to be interested. Don't attack them," Hassan said. "Try to gather as much information as you can about the group, even if it means pretending that you might be willing to be recruited yourself.
"If someone is very nonreligious and then they're super religious, it should [arouse] suspicion," Hassan said of the warning signs to look for. "Any radical personality change should concern you."
"The best thing to do, though, is not to try and rush and talk the person out of it because that often results in the person cutting you off," he said.
Ramkissoon's mother, who said she hoped her daughter would return to the cheerful girl she once was, said that others should be wary of religions they don't know much about and should do all the research they can before getting involved.
"If you or someone you know is going to follow a religious group," she said, "make sure you know everything about it beforehand."